A doctor with an astounding passion
by Obusitse Kologwe
For most of us run-of-the-mill mortals, the mere thought of dissecting a human corpse is an uncomfortable one. It is taboo, even. Not so for Dr Varasapat Naik, whose life has become inextricably linked with his profession. He describes his vocation with precision.
“Forensic pathology is my passion, my life. When I see a human corpse I see a book of interest from which to derive knowledge,” he says. “There is nothing peculiar about forensic pathology as it is a great career that contributes significantly to solving crimes and deaths across the world.”
Growing up in the impoverished town of Hyderabad, India, Patnaik hardly dreamt of any career apart from that of a medical doctor. His sole passion was to give a helping hand to the sick, especially those from under privileged families.
When the Naxalites, a group of Indian political rebels, started killing innocent people in 1975, his career path changed. He could not bear the gruesome homicides, with most of the cases going unsolved.
“Many people were dying and that stoked a desire in me to pursue a study in forensic pathology and contribute to solving the many mysteries surrounding the murders,” he says.
After completing his studies in Medicine, he became a professor at Oslo College in his native India. Between 1970 and 1975 he joined the army where he worked as a medical officer.
Driven by his outrage over the killings by the Naxillite rebels, Patnaik enrolled for a Masters Degree in Forensic Pathology in 1980. On completion, he continued to serve in the army until his relocation to Botswana in 1997.
Patnaik says he chose to come to Botswana on the strength of its political stability and economic success which he learnt from the media. He then responded to a government advert which sought a forensic pathologist. He has remained in the country since. His job entails helping the police in their investigations and ascertaining the cause of death on unresolved murders.
“For one to be a forensic pathologist, he has to be able to read DNA sciences, enzyme bio-chemistry, ballistics, basic finger printing, osteology and the ability to co-ordinate all these in order to arrive at a conclusion,” he says.
His migration to Botswana has added impetus to his love for forensic pathology, particularly that he works with a good team of police officers in their investigations.
Patnaik has also written a number of journals that are currently used by the police in their criminal investigations. One of the journals, Patnaik’s Guide to Forensic Pathology, aims to educate the police about custodial deaths and common crimes. The book is gaining recognition in other southern African countries like Lesotho, South Africa, Namibia and Malawi.
He commends the Botswana Police Service observing that they are hard workers who deserve respect and credit for their job. The forensic pathologist laments that in Botswana the police are overworked and often made to perform duties that are outside their job description. He is disheartened by the fact that the police are frequently vilified for poor service delivery and finds that to be grossly unfair to people who are stretching themselves to the limit.
“I find it unfortunate that the police have to perform duties outside the ambit of policing. That undoubtedly affects their service delivery to the nation and taints their profession,” he says.
He cited their involvement in the fight against Foot and Mouth disease outbreak as a living example and that such duties should remain within the rightful ambit of veterinary services. To him it’s absurd that they have to undertake that task.
“I believe their involvement in such duties dilutes and impacts negatively on their service delivery. It is the duty of the veterinary officers to conduct such kind of duties,” he says.
He expresses disappointment with some members of the public who always blame the police for deaths of suspects in their custody. His research often indicate that the suspects either die as a result of bad behaviour and violence against the police and in the process injure themselves during such scuffles which unfortunately in some cases result in their deaths.
“As a forensic pathologist my duty entails collecting facts in a criminal or death incident, therefore in most of my findings, custodial deaths are perpetrated by the very same victims,” he says.
Touching on forensic pathology in Botswana, Dr Patnaik urges the youth in the country to pursue the course as there is a serious shortage of forensic pathologists in the country. He said that the course contributes immensely in shaping the justice system as it contributes in furnishing evidence in murder trials.
“I want to urge interested youth to pursue forensic pathology as it is a very interesting field. Currently Botswana is facing a serious shortage of forensic pathologists, therefore youth should seize that opportunity and pursue the career,” he says.
Despite the overwhelming forensic work in the country, Patnaik is happy that the three of them work as a team and have as such been able to solve a number of mysterious deaths that had engulfed the nation.
“The two Batswana forensic pathologists that I work with are well trained and we have a very good working relationship,” he says.
He observed that most murder cases in Botswana are caused by alcohol abuse and ill-behaviour, adding that his investigations mostly involve shebeen-related fights which have often resulted in the deaths. To this end, he thinks government resolve to fight alcohol abuse is a noble exercise which needs support from all quarters.
“The government should continue its fight on alcohol abuse by regulating the operating hours of liquor traders,” he says.
Dr Patnaik also raises concerns over the rise of homicide, especially in the Selibe Phikwe region. “These cases normally affect the youths in the 20 to 30 age bracket. It is a great concern because these people are the future leaders of this country,” he said.
He is also worried by people who commit suicide and advises them to seek counseling if they are stressed or depressed.
On the challenges they face as forensic pathologists, he decries the shortage of modern equipment. He says because science is advancing every day, there is need for up to date equipment to try and help them do their duties effectively and efficiently.
“Science is advancing each day therefore there is need to advance our investigation techniques as forensic pathologists. I feel that there is a serious need by the government to try and increase the number of laboratories and technicians in the country,” he said.
The doctor also said that it is high time that video conferencing is introduced in forensic pathology for practitioners to be able to hold meetings efficiently with other pathologists and share ideas on how to solve problems. He pleaded with the government to invest more money into forensic pathology to improve it as a profession.
“It is high time that Botswana advances in forensic science technology and meet the international standards,” he says.
Dr Patnaik intends to return to his native India when his contract expires next year, adding that he is not sure if he would be keen to extend his contract if the opportunity arose. He said that he has already planned a project to undertake in India, although he has not disclosed its nature.